Al-Udeid Air Base, QATAR—The Pentagon sent a B-52 bomber across the Persian Gulf region on Tuesday, the sixth such sortie since last fall, in a show of deterrence to Iran.
The B-52H Stratofortress, a long range heavy bomber, flew from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Tuesday and was expected to make a continuous flight across Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and down the eastern Saudi coastline near the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before returning to the U.S., a senior military official said.
“Our intent is to maintain that enduring defensive posture, to deter any aggression in the region, promote regional security and assure our allies,” the senior military official said.
The U.S. has been on guard for the last couple of months and has been worried about the threat posed by Iran, particularly leading up to the presidential inauguration Jan. 20, multiple officials have said.
American officials have blamed Iran-backed militias for repeated rocket attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq last year, such as one last month that caused minor damage at the embassy compound inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Washington has condemned regular cross-border missile and drone strikes launched by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. kept an aircraft carrier in the region, maintained other military capabilities and military commanders were on high alert, officials said. That stemmed from the consensus of intelligence analysts who intercepted messages indicating Tehran or its proxies in the region were planning to avenge the death of
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani,
the leader of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020.
Officials also feared Tehran might try to take advantage of the chaotic transition of government in Washington, possibly by attacking allies or striking at American troops in Iraq.
No attack on U.S. assets came and the immediate threat from Iran has subsided somewhat, said top military officials, but the Pentagon remains watchful.
On Saturday, the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was attacked with armed drones or missiles for the first time in seven months. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said it had intercepted the projectiles, but two people familiar with the matter said an important royal complex had suffered minor damage.
While the Biden administration has vowed to reassess the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and end its support of Riyadh’s war effort in Yemen, Washington quickly condemned the attack and reiterated its commitment to the kingdom’s defense.
The coalition blamed the attack on the Houthis, who denied responsibility, and the U.S. also implied they were to blame. A previously unknown group called “True Promise Brigades” that purports to be based in Iraq distributed a statement on Telegram claiming it had targeted Yamama Palace and other sites in Riyadh in retaliation to alleged Saudi support for Islamic State.
Regardless of who was behind the attack, the incident is a sign that despite several years of maximum pressure by the Trump administration against Iran, Tehran has not significantly rolled back its support for allied militias in the Middle East.
The Houthis rebels as well as a multitude of Iran-backed Iraqi militias—which the U.S. accuses Iran of backing with weapons, money and training—have continued to threaten and occasionally attack the interests of Washington and its allies.
The recent attack on Riyadh is also likely an attempt by Iran to test how Mr. Biden—who has signalled that he would take a more conciliatory approach to Tehran than Mr. Trump—in his early days in office responds to threats against U.S. allies in the Gulf, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Iranian-backed militias with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Residents of Riyadh on Tuesday reported what appeared to be a second attack and a defensive response by a Patriot surface-to-air interceptor missile system inside the capital’s diplomatic quarter, which is adjacent to Yamama Palace. Further details of the incident remain unclear, with no public comment by the Saudi coalition or the Houthis more than 24 hours later.
U.S. military officials declined to comment on Tuesday’s incident.
The B-52 flights have become a regular practice in the region. The flight was the sixth such maneuver since November—and the third this month—with more being planned for this spring, military officials said. Tuesday’s flight was planned weeks ago and wasn’t triggered by any particular event, officials said.
The senior official said such flights are intended to deter Iran and reassure allies in the region, thus maintaining security while the Biden administration settles on a new policy for the country, the official said.
President Biden has indicated a willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal from which President Trump pulled the U.S. in May 2018. Beyond that, the Biden White House hasn’t made public any further plans on Iran.
“We do know that U.S. policy is evolving with respect to Iran right now, and the new administration will make some decisions over the next while, and I don’t have any particular insight into what those decisions will be,” the senior official said. “But if we continue to deter Iranian aggression. it will give policy makers more decision space as they set down policy.”
Dating back to the early Cold War, the B-52 is a long-range heavy bomber that the U.S. military uses for a variety of missions. It can fly at high subsonic speeds at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, go 8,800 miles without refueling and carry different kinds of precision-guided ordnance, according to the military.
The B-52 flew as part of a bomber task force, accompanied by F-15 and F-16 jet fighters and KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. Some of the planes were flown by allied aircrews, including from Jordan, officials said.
—Sune Engel Rasmussen contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8